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Where Walking Leads

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Like most people on this planet, I have been walking my entire life. Having grown up in Los Angeles, I’ve also logged plenty of time in automobiles, but I’ve been in fortunate to live most of my adult life in a famously “walkable city,” Philadelphia, where my feet have become my preferred routine means of getting around, for both utility and pleasure. 

Back in 2016, though, I took a different kind of walk in my adopted hometown. With three other artists, Adrienne Mackey, JJ Tiziou, and Sam Wend, and the support and encouragement of a foundation grant to foster inter-disciplinary “cross pollination,” I walked around Philadelphia. This wasn’t your usual casual amble around town. But literally AROUND. We followed, as closely as topography and the strictures of private property allowed, the border lines that marked the perimeter between Philadelphia and what my collaborators and I came to call “not Philadelphia.” 

The walk began just over a mile from my house. After five and a half days walking close to 103 miles, we arrived back where we started, changed in ways we weren’t able yet to predict or imagine. Our intention setting out was to discover the heart of a place we thought we knew by exploring its edges. None of us could foresee then the impact that that one walk would have on each of us. We knew something had shifted in us. We didn’t know yet the extent to which our creative practices would be permanently altered. And though the boundaries of Philadelphia stayed fixed, our own definitions, as writer, photographer, theatre director, stage manager, had turned amorphous, blurred. As artists, we were now hybrid, inter-disciplinary. We had become, though we hadn’t yet learned that the term existed, walking artists. 

For me, the effects were subtle at first, a widening of perspective on many things – the nature of cities, my relationship with place, definitions of art, even ordinary social interactions. For instance, I’m just as likely to say to a friend, “Let’s go for a walk,” then catch up sitting down at a café. My own work as a writer has always centered on place. And while writing remains my vocation and profession, and the crafting of language remains my primary medium, walking became for me a new creative mode of engaging with place, of deepening my understanding of the world I move through daily. 

And because as a writer, I tend to live very much inside my head, embracing a walking practice has been liberating. To let my body take the lead, or at least, participate in the creative act has enriched and amplified how I write and how I live. Though, when people ask me how walking affects my writing, I demure. The state I am in when I walk, that is open, fluid, moving steadily, and confidently and unself consciously, is a state I aspire to when I write. I tend to be a little more stop and start. I would love to say that every time I sit down to write I am as open and alert, and above able, fluid, as when I walk, but to write as a walker is still, I have to confess, aspirational. 

For me, the true gift of walking is not the effect it’s had on my writing, but how that simple practice opens the spirit to unexpected discoveries, to surprises, and to serendipity. The more I walk, and the more different places I walk, the more and more convinced that this most quotidian and fundamental mode of human transport offers a magic key to deep encounters, with other human beings as well as with the extra-human beings, and the fundamental elements earth, air, and water, on which all our lives depend. 

Walkers know well, as Robert Frost wrote, “how way leads onto way.” And when I look back to trace the various paths, people, places, and projects that one walk eight years ago has led to, I am astounded. When I first told people about the Philadelphia walk, they started sharing their own walking stories with me. That led me to pitch an idea for an anthology of essays about walking to an independent press, New Door Books, and that book, WAYS OF WALKING, then led me to the Art del Caminar conference in Catalunya in 2022, and to my meeting Andrew, Geert, and Babak, and discovering walk · listen · create, their dynamic, international network of walking artists. And their inspiration and energy led me to want to help WLC expand their American presence, which led to my hosting a quarterly series of conversations on WLC with U.S. authors who write about walking, Walking America (where on April 17, I’ll be talking to walking advocates Jonathon Stalls and Antonia Malchik). And those conversations have led to further connections and discoveries. And that’s just a small sampling. 

Now, guided by JJ Tiziou, anyone can WALK AROUND PHILADELPHIA, either on their own or every February and September in organized groups. But when my three companions and I started our perimeter walk, we were mostly unaware of the long legacy of walking artists whose paths we were following. Walking artists, as I’ve come to discover, are a generous, welcoming tribe, and I am grateful for this incredible community that has taken me into its ample fold. Now, as an eager student and humble initiate, I am more intentionally developing walking projects of my own. Moving away from my urban milieu, I’m embarking on walks of immersion in wilder landscapes, where humans are the least significant of species, and where one can learn from the other beings that move in and through those spaces. I just came back from India, where I was invited to walk in the Western Ghats of India as an artist in residence at The Shillim Institute, a nature preserve that encompasses 2000 acres of restored forestland, and later this year, I will be walking in the varied, yet inter-connected eco-regions of the Napeague Preserve at the eastern end of Long Island.

I don’t know yet where those paths will lead. But that not knowing, that uncertainty, I’ve come to understand, is one of walking’s great gifts. Setting out on a current of curiosity and trepidation, I move into wonder. And wonder is a quality I, we, the world sorely needs. 


Featured image: Ann just came back from India, where she was invited to walk in the Western Ghats of India as an artist in residence at The Shillim Institute, a nature preserve that encompasses 2000 acres of restored forestland. 

Ann de Forest

Ann de Forest

Ann de Forest is drawn to the resonance of place. Her short stories, essays, and poetry have appeared most recently in Hippocampus, One Art, Quarter after Eight, Gyroscope Review and Royal Beauty, a collection of ekphrastic writing. She is the editor of Wa...

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